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Have you ever been awake in the middle of the night and started to wonder what it would be like if we lived in a mind-controlled world like the realm of The Matrix? Yeah, it happens sometimes. What is really scary is that mind control is not going to be confined to sci-fi movies for long.
DARPA (the research arm of the Department of Defense) isn’t looking to create a Matrix-esque bubble where humans are created and controlled by robots. What its Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program is invested in doing is finding out how to use nanotechnology, infrared beams, and even methods of genetically engineering the human brain to create thought-controlled weapons. Like, someone can mentally zap an image to someone else or unleash a barrage of drones just by thinking it into action. That kind of mind control.
N3 will fund six teams to dream up the ultimate futuretech: advances that will allow for superfast communication between computer brains and the human brain. By coming up with noninvasive or at least minimally invasive brain-computer interfaces, DARPA is trying to minimize the time lag between the message from brain to machine. The systems developed within the next four years should be able to read and write up to 16 separate areas in a pea-sized area of the brain with a max 50-millisecond lag.
"When you try to capture brain activity through the skull, it's hard to know where the signals are coming from and when and where the signals are being generated," Jacob Robinson, one of the team leads who is also an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University, told LiveScience. "So the big challenge is, can we push the absolute limits of our resolution, both in space and time?"
This is where viral vectors come in. They might sound like computer viruses injected into the brain, but viral vectors are actually genetic material that lab-modified viruses transmit to cells, injecting certain neurons with DNA that will program them to produce two kinds of proteins that can be weaponized.
Imagine a protein that makes it possible to find out when neural activity is going on simply by absorbing light when a neuron fires. It might sound like a sci-fi movie pitch, but this is exactly what the first type of protein does. You only have to wear a headset that shoots a beam of infrared light through your skull and right into your brain.
The signal coming in response from the brain tissue would be measured by detectors in the headset to create an image of your brain. The protein will make targeted areas appear darker when neurons fire—so someone can actually read what you’re trying to do through your brain activity.
As if that doesn’t sound creepy and awesome all at once, the second type of protein attaches itself to magnetic nanoparticles. The neurons will be magnetically stimulated into firing when the headset generates a magnetic field. Stimulating neurons like this could induce images or sounds in your mind, which could someday make it possible for those wearing the headsets to read each others’ minds.
Then there’s that whole thing about manipulating drones. Another group of scientists is tackling the challenge of giving humans the ability to switch on a fleet of airborne robots just by thinking them into power mode, while feedback about where the drones are and how fast they are going is sent right to the brain.
You’ll know exactly what any one of those bots is doing if it zooms right or left because of a different type of magnetic nanoparticle. These, which can be injected or enter nasally (and be guided to the appropriate neurons by magnetic fields), will have piezoelectric outer shells around their magnetic cores. Headsets are also required here. When a magnetic field reaches targeted neurons through the headset, a neuron will be stimulated to fire when the magnetic core stresses the outer shell to generate an electrical impulse. The process can also happen in reverse because the shells can convert mechanical energy to electrical and back.
"Being able to decode or encode sensory experiences is something we understand relatively well," Robinson said. "At the bleeding edge of science, I think we are there if we had the technology to do it."